SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County leaders are poised to raise property taxes — but at a slightly lower rate after County Council Republicans spearheaded slashes to bits and pieces of the county’s roughly $1.5 billion budget.
The County Council, after hours of budget discussions last month, agreed to cuts totaling nearly $6.5 million, which — if approved — will lower the proposed property tax hike from 8.72% to about 7.88%. That rate would lower the amount of additional money the tax hike would bring in each year from about $17.7 million to about $15.95 million.
After a public hearing scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday night, the council is expected to finalize the budget with the cuts — and the tax hike — after Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson earlier this fall proposed what she called a “no frills” budget that raised taxes to address “huge structural problems.”
Because the new tax rate is lower than what was previously proposed and noticed to Salt Lake County residents, Tuesday’s public hearing is the last one required under state law before the County Council can legally adopt the new tax rate.
For years, the county’s budget has become increasingly strained as county purchasing power eroded due to inflation. Over time, even though the county’s population has been growing, revenues have been flattening as property tax rates have declined because state statute doesn’t allow tax rates to adjust for inflation, according to county fiscal staff.
That, combined with big-ticket costs expected in 2020 including next year’s presidential election and a state-mandated court, is why Wilson said she felt she had “no choice” but to propose the tax hike to avoid facility shutdowns or layoffs.
Though Wilson said her team cut all “waste” in her budget proposal, County Council Republicans scoured the budget and found about $6.5 million in one-time and ongoing funds to slash, making technical shifts from certain funds while also making mostly minor cuts to a variety of departments and programs.
Those cuts include $500,000 from the county Office of Data and Innovation, about $2.4 million in tourism dollars from equestrian park capital projects, about $328,800 for a new sergeant and vehicle and a K9 deputy and vehicle from the Sheriff’s Office, about $154,000 from one position in the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office, about $89,000 for a commercial appraiser, $216,000 for an emergency management pilot program, about $118,800 from travel expenditures, and more.
Darrin Casper, the county’s chief financial officer, credited the County Council for a “very good budget process” that found efficiencies while also not threatening the “structural balance” the tax hike was meant to strike.
“I’m very pleased with the overall process,” he told KSL on Monday. “I think everybody did a good job.”
He noted the cuts allowed staff to work with the mayor’s fiscal team to reduce the overall proposed tax rate by about 10%, still keeping the county “structurally sound” while also slightly reducing ongoing revenue.
Many of the accepted cuts came from a list proposed by Councilman Steve DeBry, as well as from a larger list proposed by County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton and Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove.
The cuts were individually hashed out and voted on by the council, controlled by a slight majority of Republicans.
“Do I like tax increases? No,” DeBry said. “But I think that this year it’s inevitable there’s going to be a tax increase. For me, it’s what’s the threshold we can get it down to keep structurally sound and fiscally responsible.”
County Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw, a Democrat, called the budget process a “good exercise,” thanking DeBry for his list of proposed cuts.
Do I like tax increases? No. But I think that this year it’s inevitable there’s going to be a tax increase. For me, it’s what’s the threshold we can get it down to keep structurally sound and fiscally responsible.
–Councilman Steve DeBry
“I would rather not mess with the (tax) rate and that we set ourselves up for a better structural balance going forward in future years, but I still support where we landed out of good faith with the exercise we’ve been through,” Bradshaw said.
As of Monday, Wilson did not voice any opposition to the cuts proposed by the council.
“My proposed budget prioritizes public safety, addresses domestic and sexual violence, and builds a foundation for Salt Lake County to continue to grow responsibly while doing everything we can to ensure our fiscal well-being,” Wilson said. “I am always open to the council’s direction in finding additional efficiencies.”
The council is expected to adopt the final budget Tuesday, though it could push the vote until Dec. 10 if issues arise. The mayor will then have up to 15 days to veto the budget or individual line items, followed by 15 days of a possible council veto override.
A final county budget must be adopted by Dec. 31 to avoid any lapse in funding.